Monday, July 25, 2011

A New Look and a Quick Tour

Those who have loyally checked into WORDS ON THE LINE over the past six-and-a-half years will notice a new look. Blogger by Google has made quite a few formatting improvements to this site, reinforcing my commitment to stick around.

For those of new to the site, you will notice that you can view this blog in multiple ways:

In the Left Column

In the Right Column

  • Search any topic from 412 posts on this blog by writing your keyword in the search box.
  • Learn about me by clicking on my name.
  • Review other links to me, including my website, Twitter, book reviews, and news.
  • Click on any of the labels, or blog topics, sized by frequency of posting
  • Click on posts by date
  • Click on sites that I frequent for information and inspiration

Feel free to link this site to anyone you think would benefit from reading it.
Books by Philip Vassallo 
  • How to Write Fast Under Pressure
  • The Art of E-mail Writing
  • The Art of On-the-Job Writing
  • The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy

Monday, July 18, 2011

Arbitrary Grammar Rules: Splitting an Infinitive

Grammar snobs who have been living in linguistic caves for all too long have an unfounded problem with splitting an infinitive, that is, placing an adverb between the two words that make the root form of the verb (e.g., to play, to sing, to write). Therefore, they find prohibitive writing phrases like to helpfully advise, to cautiously speak, and to happily walk.

The silliness of applying such a rule to every sentence shows up in these examples:
  1. Split Infinitive: We plan to quickly finish this project for the Executive Vice-president.
  2. No Split Infinitive: We plan quickly to finish this project for the Executive Vice-president.
  3. No Split Infinitive: We plan to finish quickly this project for the Executive Vice-president.
  4. No Split Infinitive: We plan to finish this project quickly for the Executive Vice-president.
  5. No Split Infinitive: We plan to finish this project for the Executive Vice-president quickly.
Few people would prefer Sentence 2 or 3 because of their ambiguity or awkwardness; however, those who favor Sentence 3 or 4 to Sentence 1 have no reasonable semantic or syntactic ground on which to stand. The fact that the adverb is closer to the verb it modifies—the adverb is embedded in the verb—enhances its clarity.
  1. Split Infinitive: She was hoping to efficiently go through the store with her children in tow
  2. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping efficiently to go through the store with her children in tow.
  3. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping to go efficiently through the store with her children in tow.
  4. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping to go through the store efficiently with her children in tow.
  5. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping to go through the store with her children efficiently in tow.
  6. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping to go through the store with her children in tow efficiently.
Sentences 2, 5, and 6 pose clarity problems, but Sentences 3 and 4, which may be favored, are actually not as clear or fluent as the split infinitive.
So what should you do when confronted with a split infinitive during the editing phase? Exactly what I’ve said many times before in this blog: read your sentences aloud for fluency. You’ll figure it out.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Arbitrary Grammar Rules: Sentence Beginnings

Here is another rule that we can do without: Do not begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or or. Some of the best English-language writers begin sentences with conjunctions. Others agree with me: It offends those who wish to confine English usage in a logical straitjacket that writers often begin sentences with “and” or “but.” True, one should be aware that many such sentences would be improved by becoming clauses in compound sentences, but there are many effective and traditional uses for beginning sentences thus.

Daily Writing Tips: English teachers used to preach that one should never start a sentence with conjunctions like and or but. Does this rule still apply today? Not entirely. It is already acceptable to start sentences with such conjunctions.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Monday, July 04, 2011

Arbitrary Grammar Rules: Sentence Endings

Since I still get the question, I should cover the rule that many experts have already answered: Can you use a preposition to end a sentence with? (I suppose I could have written, "Can you end a sentence with a preposition?" but I couldn't resist.) Here's the short answer: Yes.

And now for the longer answer: Only a grammar snob or an inexperienced writer would hold fast to such an arbitrary rule. Even the Oxford Dictionary Online sees no point in this rule. True, we would do well to make our sentences more concise, as in these sentences:

Wordy, Awkward: What should I do this for?
Concise, Fluent: Why should I do this?

Wordy, Awkward: Where does this go to?
Concise, Fluent: Where does this go?

But in the sentences below, the sentence ending with the preposition is better than the alternative:

Awkward: To whom should I give this?
Fluent: Whom should I give this to?

Awkward: At what are you looking?
Fluent: What are you looking at?

Books by Philip Vassallo

Sunday, July 03, 2011

127, uh, 139 Influences: A Postscript

I could have added so many more categories and hundreds of more names to those people who have affected my thinking and communication skills. As it was, over the past 9 weeks and 12 posts, I overran my promise of 120 influences and ended with 127, adding 7 names to the last 3 categories (2 artists, 2 composers, and 3 musicians). All this did was make me want to start the list all over again to add a dozen or poets, dramatists, philosophers, and so one. But I have to stop somewhere.

Yet I won't stop not quite there but here. I should close on those a final dozen folks who have lived and learned and worked with me and had the greatest influence on my thinking. Unlike the previous 12 posts, whose influences appeared in alphabetical order, these influences appear in the order that they came into my life: Frank Vassallo, my father, for his remarkable storytelling; Elizabeth Hitz, my sister, for her aspirations to all things intellectual; Joseph Vella, my uncle, for his work ethic; Matthew Loscalzo, a neighborhood friend, high school classmate, and college classmate, for his remarkable leadership skills; Robert Doyle, a high school teacher who introduced me to music and art in its truest sense; Charles Lynch, an English professor in my undergraduate years, for showing me that great literature is not limited to the past; Georgia Kostares, my wife, for reminding me that selflessness and loyalty to family transfers to the writing discipline; Harry Kamish, my professional mentor, for his acumen and boundless knowledge; John Hitz, my brother-in-law, for the value he places on scholarship; Robert Delisle, a professor at Lehman College, for his perspective on children-centered education; J. J. Chambliss, a graduate professor at Rutgers, for his depth of intellectual inquiry; and Michael Bartlett, a spiritual mentor, for exemplifying how to walk the talk.

Books by Philip Vassallo